somewhere around the third or fourth listen it steps into the spotlight to deliver a pulverising blow...
Janne Oinonen

14:02 10th May 2007

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Despite its pugilistic title, this eagerly awaited follow-up to the National's anthemic 2005 breakthrough 'Alligator' initially lurks timidly around the corners, almost as if it’s lacking the confidence to throw a punch. Turns out it's all part of a match plan worthy of a champion. Elusive, subdued and slippery, 'Boxer' takes a while to warm up, but somewhere around the third or fourth listen it steps into the spotlight to deliver a pulverising blow. A slow-burner, then, but what could be more appropriate for a late-night platter such as this: downbeat, red-eyed and mysterious, filled with regret and longing, but hope, tenderness and defiance too.

Although the acoustic-oriented foundations of tracks like 'Start A War', 'Apartment Story' and 'Green Gloves' nod towards such bittersweet back catalogue highlights as 'About Today', ''Boxer' is no rehash of former glories. Whereas 'Alligator' strutted like a bunch of escapees from suburbia drunk on the neon lights of the metropolis for the first time, nodding towards the band's real-life progress from Cincinnati, Ohio to Brooklyn, New York, here the party's soured, the drink cabinet's emptied and a scuffle's broken out, exposing the melancholia that bubbled just beneath the swaggering surface of 'Boxer's predecessor.

A seamless merger of defunked post-punk beats, adventurously handled acoustic instrumentation, chamber music-hued string swirls, distant brass, foreboding feedback gusts and ominous piano notes falling hard like the first raindrops of a torrential storm, 'Boxer's catches the five-piece oozing with imagination, pulling off stylistic mixtures that shouldn't work with astounding ease. Topping the simmering sonic brew, Matt Berninger's vocals alternate between a reticent half-mumble and wounded crooning. His range might not stretch to that many notes, but he nails every single one. It's impossible to tell what the fragmented lyrics on the likes of 'Squalor Victoria' - musically an astonishing union between clinical punk-funk clatter, sustained cello stabs and hymnal gracefulness - mean exactly, but they feel right, their enigmatic couplets a natural match for the shadowy music. Picking highlights from such a unified whole's pointless - the way 'Fake Empire' combines a mournful dirge and jerking drums, the claustrophobic 'Mistaken for Strangers' (think of Sonic Youth's 'Rather Ripped' creeping in the sewers), the metronomic atmospherics of 'Brainy' - virtually every track's a winner.

"You're dumbstruck, baby", goes the mournful refrain to the breathtaking 'Racing Like A Pro', a luminous lamentation of potential pissed away. By the end of this total K.O. of an album, the odds are you're familiar with that feeling.

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